July 12, 2015

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT With “The Penguin Whisperer” (CRICKET MAGAZINE, January 2013) Guy Stewart #20

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right” and I’m busy sharing that with you.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

With “The Penguin Whisperer” I did everything right – except the ending; not of the story, but of my actions. But I’ll get to that at the end.

First thing I did right, was I listened. Lonnie Plecha, editor at CRICKET MAGAZINE was a guest of honor at the 2011 Minnesota SCBWI Fall Conference and spoke a few times. One of the things he said was that they were looking for science fiction.

AH! I wrote science fiction! I’d even had a story in CRICKET long ago (in the previous century! I wrote about that here: http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2014/09/writing-advice-what-went-right-in.html). I could write a story for him!

 I returned from the conference and started to examine my ideas. I’d learned by now (finally) that any story for kids had to have a sort of “double meaning”. It had to entertain, which is first and foremost.

This was wisdom promulgated by the master of science fiction for young people, Robert A. Heinlein, when he said, “If a writer does not entertain his readers, all he is producing is paper dirty on one side. I must always bear in mind that my prospective reader could spend his recreation money on beer rather than on my stories; I have to be aware every minute that I am competing for beer money - and that the customer does not have to buy.”

But this isn’t everything. In a future world that Heinlein had no way of imagining, but is the one we live in, SF for young people has to serve a second purpose – it has to teach while at the same time reading like it’s ONLY entertaining.

Just before he wrote the quote above, he’d outlined the “why” of his writing. While he is famous for what he wrote and certainly created worlds both exciting and terrifying, Heinlein was also brutally honest: “Now, for some background on Stranger and my stories in general: I write for the following reasons – 1. To support myself and my family; 2. To entertain my readers; 3. And, if possible, to cause my readers to think. The first two of these reasons are indispensable, and dilute, together, a commonplace market transaction.”

In my office, I had a story I’d tried writing a number of years ago that involved penguin research on the space station of my 1997 story, Courage. Because penguins have peculiar properties of surviving deep dives and returns to the surface without any damage from “the bends”, the crew of the space station was researching them. In the original story, I had the penguins escape, Candace Mooney follow them, discover that they’d made a slide of ice that had formed form a leaking water pipe...well, you can see the problem. This was a vignette with no real driving factor; it wasn’t a story.

Since that time though, I’d seen a video on a phenomenon that occurred among penguins in the Antarctic that appeared random, but in fact not only provided a means to surviving the brutal cold, but was also an event that involved a concept of physics called “colloidal jamming” (see it here: http://www.livescience.com/41998-emperor-penguin-huddle-physics.html?li_source=pm&li_medium=more-from-livescience&li_campaign=related_test, and the explanation here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110601171614.htm). A little research gave me the concepts and ideas, but besides writing a boring science article, how could I turn this into a story?

I needed two characters and a conflict, Candace was one of them, but she was going to be dealing with a more intellectual problem this time. She needed to be older.

I also needed to actually invent the research project that the group scientists on Courage would be working on. As well, I had to expand my understanding of the station’s structure, command, and departments...

An immense undertaking, but it seemed to flow and when I was done, I submitted the story, and the editor bought it the first time around!

I have not sold a story to him since then – not for lack of trying. I haven’t been able to breech the defenses of CICADA, either. Have I suddenly become a horrible writer? Have all of my ideas become stupid?

I don’t think so – but I DID make a social mistake. For a period, CRICKET MEDIA was in a bit of a financial crisis. They were not paying their writers on publication, nor were they moving submissions through the process with any kind of speed. “The Penguin Whisperer” was published and I waited for my check, as I’d signed the contract and knew roughly how quickly CM’s financial systems had moved in the past.

Three months after the publication of the story, and still without a paycheck, I sent a strongly worded email of concern, including one to the editor I’d worked with several times. Shortly after, I was paid in the middle of April – but I greatly fear that I was put on a “black list” of authors NOT to work with because they’re troublesome...

So…what did I do right with “The Penguin Whisperer”?

1) Listened to the editor.

2) Work to find both entertainment and education aspects of a story.

3) If an old, unsold idea is a good one, apply it in a TOTALLY DIFFEENT WAY.

4) Put at least two characters in conflict.

5) Do as much world-building “off stage” as you can. It does NOT have to be in the story!

What did I do wrong?

1) Nothing – but I risked and I may have lost the opportunity to publish in a top market...

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